The expiration date for a team with a core of top-tier lottery picks always comes due sooner than expected. The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't played a single game since being in the NBA Finals, and yet they've already decided to get rid of a member of their superstar trio, James Harden.
Their ability -- or perhaps inability -- to preserve their place as a championship contender with Harden gone will be the lasting legacy of the blockbuster deal. Oklahoma City sent him to the Houston Rockets along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two future first-round draft picks and a future second. But the impact will be wide ranging.
Oklahoma City weighed the risks and sacrificed immediate strength for longer financial flexibility. The Thunder have precedent, too, set when they dealt Jeff Green in 2011. They still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Serge Ibaka's long-term value in the frontcourt always was greater than Harden's immediate talents on the wing. Oklahoma City also has options for the future and a potential piece in Lamb. But instead of the reigning NBA sixth man of the year, it will have to assimilate Martin, who now must play second-unit general after years of being accustomed to heavy minutes and plenty of the ball for bad teams.
If they weren't before, the Los Angeles Lakers now officially are the team to beat in the Western Conference. While the Thunder are focused on financial health, the physical variety remains the key for Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. But the Lakers made their offseason moves based on player strengths and fit, unconstrained by spending concerns and salary cap taxes.
If this was what Houston intended all offseason, the resulting roster still isn't overwhelming. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has proved he's adept at making deals. But even if Harden is ready for franchise player status, a number of his teammates need to make the leap (Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik) or simply need time (rookies Terrence Jones and Royce White). Unlike Harden's bank account, their growth isn't guaranteed.
- Craig Stouffer